Who doesn't love a good deal? Imagine the relief of debt forgiveness!
Fr. Aaron Warwick, co-host of Teach Me Thy Statutes, exegetes the parable commonly referred to as The Unjust Steward in the Gospel of Luke and demonstrates the wisdom of the steward through a more careful translation of the Greek which renders The Steward of the Unjust. The Master praises his steward for doing what the Master intends: distributing mercy just as the Apostle Paul mercifully distributes the Gospel to the Gentiles. The parable serves as a reminder that we will all be called to account on the Last Day for the abundant mercy the Lord provides and expects to be shared with our neighbors.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You are listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. I'm happy to welcome Fr. Aaron Warwick, cohost of the podcast, Teach Me Thy Statutes, which you may find on the Ephesus School Network. Fr. Aaron has served over 12 years as the parish priest at St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Wichita, Kansas. In addition to a seminary degree from st Vladimir's Seminary, he has a master's degree in philanthropy and nonprofit development, and a degree in accounting. He serves on the board of directors for multiple nonprofits. So welcome, Fr. Aaron!
Fr. Aaron Warwick 0:52
Thank you, Hollie, it's good to be here with you. I look forward to our conversation today. And I really appreciate the work that you've been doing as the executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative.
Hollie Benton 1:02
Glory to God. Thanks, Fr. Aaron. So to set up our conversation today, I'm going to assume that everyone loves a good deal. If we own or manage a business or nonprofit, or even a religious institution, generally, we work toward managing our expenses so that they are lower than the income received. Operating in the black is an indicator of proper management and a job well done. And if we're on the consumer side, who doesn't love a great discount! I can't tell you how many friends love to share their stories about beautiful stuff they buy at a bargain, something that they consider a high value transacted through pennies on the dollar. So let's just admit that we're all conditioned to appreciate a good deal. And what does all this have to do with the gospel or living as a doulos, a servant in the household of the Lord? Well, today we're going to dig into what's commonly referred to as the parable of the unjust steward found in the Gospel of Luke chapter 16. It's a story where those in debt receive a great deal by having their debts cut by 20% or 50%. Even the steward himself gets a good deal by ensuring that he won't be put out on the streets to beg when he presumably loses his job as the steward and creates friends among the debtors when he reduces their debts they owe to his master. And what's fascinating is that, while it seems the master is the only one not getting a good deal, he's not complaining. Instead, he praises the steward for his shrewdness. It's an incredible story, and it seems to stump those who hear it. Unfortunately, those who tried to make sense of the story often pose really contradictory interpretations. On the one hand, some view the steward in a really bad light. He appears to be more concerned about his own skin and gaining favor with friends, by canceling their business debts with the master before the steward loses his job. On the other hand, some interpret the steward in a very positive light, seeing him as a Robin Hood type of character, stealing the wealth of his master and distributing to the poor. And I've even heard some use this passage to justify being shrewd in business on a financial level, because the steward is complimented by his master for being so shrewd. So Fr. Aaron, are any of these interpretations helpful? Or do they all just fall short?
Fr. Aaron Warwick 3:33
That's a good question. And I have to admit, Hollie, that I like a good deal, too. That's part of being an accounting major, I think, I like good deals. You know, none of these interpretations, in my opinion, are helpful, because I think if you examine them in the light of the rest of Scripture, in light of the rest of the gospel, it just doesn't make any sense. And so I think we have to dig deeper to find out what's really being said, and to do that, we have to look at the original Greek, and the context of all of this to properly understand what's going on so that it actually, we'll see, that it does align with the rest of the gospel.
Hollie Benton 4:08
Yes, so let's hear the Gospel of Luke chapter 16. I'll read it now. "He also said to his disciples, there was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do, for my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I'm ashamed to beg. I have resolved what to do that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his master's debtors to him and said to the first, how much do you owe my master? And he said, 100 measures of oil. So he said to him, take your bill, and sit down quickly and write 50. Then he said to another, and how much do you owe? So he said, 100 measures of wheat. And he said to him, take your bill and write 80. So the master commended the unjust steward, because he had dealt shrewdly, for the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much. And he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore, if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man's, who will give you what is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." So if I may, Fr. Aaron, I'd like to point out that the New Testament Greek for "account" as in "give an account of the stewardship" refers to logon or logos, a critical term for understanding the word or teaching of the gospel. Also, the word that we hear translated as shrewd actually comes from phronimos, which actually means wise or prudent. Shrewd really produces a negative view of the steward, whereas wise or prudent might unlock some greater understanding. So then, of course, I went to the Luke and Acts commentary written by Fr. Paul Tarazi, our seminary professor of scripture, and it all makes sense, as he writes, "The master praises the steward, because the master's will is in fact to grant mercy to those who are in debt to him. In other words, what the master really wants done with his goods and possessions is for them to be generously distributed, according to his mercy." II's as though, the will of the master is to operate in the red, so to speak by our standards of calculation, when He extends mercy and cancels debts. But then the amazing thing about the Lord as Master is that his mercy is abundant. He operates a solvent business within this operation of infinite mercy. So what else is going on here, Fr. Aaron, with this passage, because the master, the kyios, praises the manager, or the oikonomon, an important word often associated with the Apostle Paul, and refers to him as the oikonomon tes adikias, the steward of the unrighteous?
Fr. Aaron Warwick 7:44
Yeah, so Hollie, I think you're getting to the gist of it here. I would just take a step back to look at this passage within its context. We can see that ultimately, this text is dealing with the mission, Paul's mission to the Gentiles. And we can see that because if you look at Luke, chapter 15, the story that immediately preceded this one, we have the famous parable of the prodigal son. After it, you have the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Actually, I wrote my masters thesis on that talking about how that story itself as well, is really about the idea of taking the gospel to the nations, to the Gentiles. And so that's what's going on here in this parable, as it's often referred to as the unjust steward. I guess just taking it from the top, there's several things that I would bring up. First of all, I really liked how you highlighted this idea of God and his infinite mercy, how he operates, like, as you said, we would think in the red because he's always canceling these debts. And so it's really interesting to look at verse one, that it begins by saying this rich man was upset with his steward, because there was this accusation that this man was wasting his goods. And yet, in the end, the rich man praises the steward because he wrote down the debts. And so what's ultimately going on in this passage, we can see then, is that this rich man who of course, represents God in the parable, is upset that the steward previously had not been canceling debts, had not been spreading His mercy. And so we see that he's speaking here about the mercy being multiplied. We see several other things. You mentioned about the oikonomos which is often how Paul is presented in his epistles. And then we have this whole notion that goes on. It's mentioned a couple times in the parable about how the steward would be received into their houses, which I think is a reference to the famous house churches of the early Gentiles when they were forced to meet in houses because they were not allowed to meet in the synagogue with the Jews. But what I think really trips people up, and you kind of highlighted this to an extent, is this whole idea of the unjust steward, which is really a poor translation, It seems if you go back and look at the Greek, as you can see in verse eight, when it's translated here into the English, it says, so the master commended the unjust steward, because he had dealt shrewdly. Well, there's two things that are going on there, if you look at the Greek. So the first thing that's a problem as it relates to the English translation is, when it talks about the unjust or the unrighteous, in the Greek, it's using the genitive case. And normally, when you translate something from Greek into English from the genitive case, you use the word "of" in front of that modifier. And so really, the better translation it would seem, would be that the master commended "the steward of the unjust." So instead of the unjust steward, you see that it's referring to the steward of the unjust, which would be the steward, the oikonomos of the Gentiles who were ipso facto considered unjust, unrighteous. They didn't even have the law, how on earth could they possibly follow it? So this is a reference to the Gentiles. And then as you had noted, this phronimos is normally translated as wisely and prudently. I'm not sure why it's mentioned here "shrewdly" in the English translations. But what's actually going on then is the master commends this oikonomos who writes down the debts and he commends him for being the steward of the unrighteous, the steward of the Gentiles and for dealing with them wisely. One thing I want to point out too, Hollie, is the way that these debts are, what you said, you know, 20%, or 50% off, right? But there's probably more meaning to that. The 50 is the year of the Jubilee. This is the year when all the slaves are freed, the debts are all forgiven. So it's likely a reference to that. And then the 80 is probably an extension of the number eight, the Day of Resurrection, the eschaton, the whole idea that the nations will be brought into this as well through the teaching of the Gospel, the submission to God's will through learning the gospel. So that's what we have going on here. And we see this even further then in verse nine. And your translation, it says, "I say to you make friends for yourself by unrighteous mammon." Again, it was the genitive case that was used there. So a better translation, "I say to you make friends for yourselves by the mammon of the unrighteous." So again, it's referring to the Gentiles. They're not necessarily modifying the mammon as itself being unrighteous, or obtaining it by unrighteous means. And then there's another thing you'll notice, in most of the English translation, there'll be a note when it says that YOU fail. The earlier translations seem to say when IT fails, most likely meaning the gospel being received by the Jews, by the sons of light, in that previous verse number eight, we see that reference to the sons of light, that the Gentiles will receive it. And the gospel continues on through them, as we know is the case of what happened.
Hollie Benton 12:49
Right. That's powerful.
Fr. Aaron Warwick 12:50
What I also find interesting is some of the translations also do say this, YOU fail instead of IT fails, which also seems to have a meaning, that when you fail. So one of the key aspects of the New Testament is, of course, that we all fail. We all fall short of the glory of God, as St. Paul said in Romans, but what Jesus constantly teaches then for us, Orthodox Christians who will be celebrating forgiveness Sunday, this coming Sunday, at least when we're recording this podcast is coming up, on March 6, 2022. We learn, and it's again, it's a consistent theme in the gospel, that we will only be forgiven if we forgive others. With the same mercy that we give to others, that's the measure that will be used to judge us. And so if we are merciful, if we write down the debts of the unrighteous of the Gentiles, or anyone else, you know, who happens to be unrighteous, and we're merciful to them, then when we fall short, when we fail, then we also will be accepted into God's kingdom because we showed mercy to others, and he will show that same mercy to us. And then finally, Hollie, I just want to mention in verse 11, because again, we get this whole idea of the unrighteous mammon. As you read, and in most English translations in verse 11 say, "Therefore, if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to you the true riches?" Here, instead of using the genitive with the unrighteous, it uses the dative, which would normally, instead of the word "of" would be "for," is how we normally translate the dative into English from the Greek. So in that case, it would say, "Therefore, if you have not been faithful in the mammon for the unrighteous who will commit to your trust the true riches?" So if we have not been faithful in taking that message to the nations, if we have not been faithful in reconciling those who were lost, how would we expect the inheritance of the kingdom?
Hollie Benton 14:48
So finally, I just have to ask Fr. Aaron, does this passage have anything to do with how to be wise or prudent or even generous with money? We hear about the unrighteous mammon. You discussed "mammon of the unrighteous," some people see unrighteous mammon as money, are we supposed to give it away as a way to extend mercy? Even the famous verse that we hear at the end of this parable, "No servant can serve two masters,.You cannot serve God and mammon." So what exactly is the warning, or the call to be faithful in what is least?
Fr. Aaron Warwick 15:23
Yeah, that's a good question. And I would say, you know, yes, absolutely, it does have to do with money. And I would just say, in general, you know, the gospel really intrudes into our life. And I mean that in a positive way, in the sense that it impacts - should impact - everything that we do, the way that we see the world, the way that we interact with the world. And I think, especially in a modern society, and especially in consumer societies, like we have in the West, money is something that is extremely important, you know, it's often viewed as the measure of how successful we are. And so, yes, of course, one of the things that we need to do is to share of our money. That is something that you had mentioned at the beginning that I have a master's degree in nonprofit development, and philanthropy. And so that's something that's extremely important to me. And I think that a lot of us, you know, we feel like we earn our money, we pay our taxes, maybe we give a little bit to the church, but the gospel intrudes even beyond that, and it makes us uncomfortable. We kind of tend to keep money private, a lot of people don't even share with their children or with their family members, you know, how much money they make, and so forth. Maybe they like to show off how much money they have in the things that they buy, but they don't like to come out and talk about it. But again, the Gospel intrudes into that aspect of our life. The only warning that I like to give in that respect, is that money is not everything. And by that, I mean, we should not think that we can just throw a little bit of money at some problems, we can throw a little bit of money at nonprofit organizations, and we've done our duty, we've done our responsibility to help the poor and the needy and the outcast. So it goes beyond that. When we talk about mammon. I'm saying it includes things like our reputation, the goods of this world, and part of the goods of this world is having a good reputation. It's something that's extremely valuable. But sometimes, again, if we're going to do the gospel, we have to get our hands dirty. We have to associate with people who are outcasts, who are not necessarily respected. And sometimes that calls into question our reputation. What are you doing with them? Why do you hang out with them? Why do you keep interacting with them? Why do you bring them into the church? It goes beyond money. But yes, it definitely does have something to do with money as well, because, again, that's an important part of how we view ourselves in society. It's part of how we measure things. It's how people are able to acquire things that they need for their basic needs. So it includes money, but certainly is not just limited to money.
Hollie Benton 18:02
Wow, thank you, Fr. Aaron, for teaching this passage today. I'm really excited and grateful too that you're going to be one of our presenters at this year's upcoming leadership conference in September, hosted in partnership with St. Vladimir's Seminary. The theme this year is going to be Money - The Gospel Changes Everything, something that you've demonstrated in your teaching today. It's not just about money, but beyond money, you know, mercy and reputation and all of that. Some of the discussions and presentations at this conference will include the model of the whole burnt offering, stewardship, tithing, temptations with consumerism, debt accumulation, wealth, anonymous giving, cultivating generosity in children, the parish as steward, and the spiritual discipline of almsgiving. So listeners can find out more about this 2022 conference on our website, orthodoxservantleaders.com.
Fr. Aaron Warwick 19:00
I look forward to it, Hollie.
Hollie Benton 19:02
So thank God for your faithfulness, Fr. Aaron, to the teaching, the logos, by which we will all be called to account on the Last Day.
Fr. Aaron Warwick 19:09
Thank you, Hollie.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai